It’s dark, rainy and hard to see out of your rearview mirror. As you’re backing up out of a parking spot, you feel a sudden jolt as you accidentally reverse into a parked car. Oh no! Has this ever happened to you?
Many people panic when they hit a parked car, wondering what they should do. Don’t worry, you’re not alone.
With the busy holiday season right around the corner, packed parking lots and more frequent shopping trips means an increase in fender benders and other car accidents. The rules are relatively straightforward on what to do if you cause an accident and all parties involved are present.
But what about accidents that involve a parked car, when the owner is nowhere to be seen?
Here’s what you need to know (and do) if this happens to you.
What to do after hitting a parked car (8 steps)
Most state laws require all US drivers to obey a standard of “reasonable care, ” which means acting in a way any prudent driver would in a similar situation. Each state sets its own specific legal requirements in vehicle codes and other traffic laws and regulations. Whether an accident happens in a parking lot or public street, it makes no difference.
While it’s important to be aware of your local requirements, there are some common themes to help understand what the law requires if you hit a parked car and can’t find the owner of the other vehicle. Follow these steps to make sure you comply with the law and protect yourself from additional claims:
Legal DO’s and DON’Ts after hitting a parked car:
● DO inform your insurance company
● DO pay for damages (if at fault)
● DO contact an attorney
● DON’T forget to document the accident (take pictures and video)
● DON’T admit fault or apologize
1. Stay calm and breathe
First, stop your car and take a breath. Make sure you’re okay and that no one in your car is injured. If you or someone else is hurt, call 911 immediately. If possible, move your car off the road and to a safe place nearby. Turn on your flashers to warn others to be cautious as you will be getting out of your car.
Your health and safety is the number one priority.
2. Don’t hit and run
A hit and run accident is when a person collides with a person or another car (parked or in motion) and flees the accident scene. Leaving the scene is considered a criminal offense. Depending on the state, a hit and run may be a misdemeanor or felony punishable by fines, jail time, license points or all of these.
If you leave the scene, a police officer can use evidence and surveillance cameras to identify, locate and arrest you. You will also face higher insurance rates or an insurer may not even take you on.
You can look for the owner but don’t go too far. You definitely don’t want to drive away from the scene. A “reasonable” attempt to find the vehicle owner can be asking eyewitnesses, passersby or even checking inside nearby stores or restaurants.
Long story short: If you hit parked car, stay put because it’s the law.
3. Leave a note
When you hit a parked car, you’re expected to make a reasonable attempt to locate the owner of the car and notify them. This effort often proves difficult, which is why many states have adopted a minimal requirement to leave a note with your information.
Pin the note under the wiper (in a sandwich bag if you have one in case it rains). This note helps you avoid being accused of a hit and run. Don’t say anything in the note that puts you in a bad light or admits fault such as “Sorry I ruined your car” or “I’m such a bad driver.”
Some states stipulate the exact details to provide, but at the very least the note should contain your:
- Phone number
- A brief explanation of what happened
Keep it simple.
4. Report it to police
If there’s any noticeable damage or injury, you should contact police.
In addition, some states, like Florida and California, legally require you to report any accident to the police as well as provide your information. In New York, a driver must notify police if they’re unable to exchange information.
The penalties for failing to report an accident to authorities are more severe when injuries are involved. The state of Illinois, for instance, charges a felony (varying by aggravation) for fleeing an accident scene and failing to report an injury within 30 minutes.
5. Take photos and video
Take as many photos as you can using your phone or a camera. Include damage to other car, their license plate and other views of the car. Take pictures of your own car damage in case you need repairs through your insurance. Also remember to take a photo or video of the note placed on the car. This visual evidence helps record the exact state of the cars following the accident and proves you followed the law by leaving a note.
6. Talk to witnesses
Talk to any eyewitnesses. This helps show that you didn’t flee the scene and can reinforce your version of events. If you feel uncomfortable approaching strangers, feel free to wait for the police and let them talk to the witnesses.
7. Call your insurance company
Your insurance company expects to be notified of any accident, even if you weren’t able to locate the vehicle owner and left a note. This protects them and you, so be sure to call as soon as possible and tell them about the incident.
8. Consult an attorney
While not legally required, we strongly recommend you schedule a free consultation with a local car accident attorney near you. Depending on the extent of the damage or whether you were at-fault, speaking with a personal injury attorney can help greatly minimize your liability and deal with the claim.
What to do if you panicked and left the accident scene
In a moment of panic, people often make the grave mistake of leaving the scene of the accident after hitting a parked car. This is a hit and run, which is considered a criminal offense, and the owner may have up to 2 years to file a claim.
Fortunately, there are ways you can make the situation right and clear your conscience.
First, how long ago was this? Did it just happen less than an hour ago? If the parked car is still there, go back and leave your contact information on the windshield.
If the car is no longer there, there are two main ways you can handle this:
- The best option is to speak with an attorney immediately about representing you. They can help communicate with police on your behalf and protect you from accidentally making incriminating remarks. Your attorney will help you present your version of events in the best possible light.
- The second (and more intimidation) option, is to contact the police. Be honest. Tell them you panicked and didn’t know what to do. Tell them you made a mistake and you’re calling to report it. Answer their questions and tell them any identifying information you can remember about the other car (license plate, model, color, etc.). Police have to operate within the law, but chances are they’ll appreciate you wanting to do the right thing. They may check to see if there were any reports filed by the owner; if there were none, they may not take it any further. If there are, then it’s better you reached out rather than they find you.
Was the accident your fault?
If the car you hit was parked, you will likely be deemed “at fault” for the accident. The only exceptions to this rule is if the accident was beyond your control (e.g. you swerved to miss a pedestrian) or if the car was parked illegally. In such cases, you may be able to reduce or eliminate your liability with the help of an attorney.
The at-fault driver will be responsible for paying for the other vehicle owner’s damages. This is typically handled through your auto insurance. You’re not legally obligated to repair your own car unless it’s unsafe to have on the road.
Will your insurance go up for hitting a parked car?
If you are at fault, the short answer is probably. Ultimately, though, it’ll depend on your insurer, your insurance policy, the level of damage and if you’ve filed a claim before. Some insurers have “accident forgiveness,” which allows a single at-fault collision without increasing rates.
Should you settle out of pocket? It’s worth noting that most insurers require you to report any accident within a reasonable time. This protect both them and you. However, to avoid increased rates, people do sometimes choose to settle with the other driver out of their own pocket, but this carries some risks.
Ultimately, only you can decide what risks you’re willing to take.
Above all, try not to beat yourself up.
Everyone makes mistakes and many make this one. In the words of poet Alexander Pope: “To err is human; to forgive, divine.”